I was very much looking forward to the second outing of THE CORONER, otherwise known as Jenny Cooper. Although I certainly enjoyed THE DISAPPEARED, I don't think it quite matches up to the promise of the earlier book.
As THE DISAPPEARED opens, Jenny is confronted with a "cold" case – that of two Asian students who disappeared eight years ago, and were presumed dead after the most cursory of police investigations. One of the young men has a passionate and strong mother, Mrs Jamal, who insists that the police did not do a proper job to find the lads. She believes that the young men are dead, and the core of the plot of THE DISAPPEARED is Jenny's inquest in which she hopes to find out the truth of what happened and, in the process, lay a mother's anxiety to rest one way or the other.
There are lots of good things about THE DISAPPEARED, and I recommend it as a superior thriller. Jenny is an attractively flawed main character: she wrestles with her feelings of inadequacy as the single parent of a (particularly selfish and unappealing) teenager; and she's determined not to be trampled on by the male establishment of police, hospital and legal forces of bureaucracy that seem more concerned with maintaining the status quo than with justice. She is dependent on anti-depressant medication, though less so than in the previous novel, and has ambivalent feelings towards her lover, her neighbour Steve – the more he undertakes a life-change to be more like what Jenny has envisaged in a partner, the more emotionally detached she becomes from him.
Jenny is also struggling with her relationship with her assistant Alison, who is not only too embedded with the local police for Jenny's taste, but also has deep religious convictions which compromise her objectivity. Enter maverick, struck-off, devastatingly attractive ex-lawyer Alec McAvoy, and Jenny's confusion escalates – at first she believes Alec is helping her to expose a cover-up by MI5 and the police about what happened to the two young men; but later it transpires that Alec very much has his own agenda. Add some university politics and some lethal radioactive contamination into the mix, and anything could happen as the plot lurches from one crisis to the next.
Is THE DISAPPEARED a conspiracy thriller, or is it the story of a woman fighting to hold her professional and personal lives together in the face of seemingly implacable opposition? Jenny Cooper is an attractive protagonist because she's determined yet flawed, principled yet doubting, professional yet emotional, honest yet out of control. Unfortunately for me, she and her story are swamped by all the to-ings and fro-ings of the rather too many vested interests who are trying to keep a lid on the case of the lost boys. Therefore, the plot suffered from believability issues and the resolution lost the impact that it might otherwise have had. I shall read the next novel by M. R. Hall because I think that Jenny is a fascinating character who stands out as a true individual in a crowded crime-fiction landscape. However, if the focus of this series is to veer more towards the paranoid thriller and focus less on Jenny, her life and concerns as a coroner, I'll be less keen – spies and spooks novels are two a penny, but you don't get too many books about coroners and their concerns, particularly those as intriguing as Jenny Cooper and her life-issues.